Starting from scratch #9: Paper vs vellum

Paper vs vellum

With regard to intended purpose, we may ask why this ‘commoner’s manuscript’ – as it appears to be – was not set on paper as a majority of that type were.  It might still be a rough, or draft version, but vellum would suggest it was not meant for just a single use.

Among the possible explanations is that the manuscript was to be used in an environments where more durable material was appropriate. In the next posts we see that vellum is often used for portable folding-  or fold-out calendars.

Another possibility, and one which accounts for the apparent effort at ‘facsimile’ reproduction, is that the matter was regarded with some respect, perhaps by reason of rarity, antiquity or some name attached to the exemplars, so that the maker/s employed the best materials at their disposal. However, it is noticeably rough. By about the thirteenth century vellum in Latin works from France, Northern Italy, England and central Europe is typically thin and well-finished.

Respect could also explain why the Voynich fold-outs have their present form.  To make them so would have involved the maker/s in additional cost and inconvenience if they were layman, and in some cases the length positively reduces a reader’s convenience; the very long fold-outs cannot be used easily without a bench or table, and to see the whole series, each long strip must be unfolded and then turned, with less than half of it visible at once.

The longest fold-out (fols. 67 and 68) measures 225 x (160mm x  ≈5.5 ) – that is, approx. 880 mm or 34.6 inches, which alone makes it a rarity for a portable text supposedly made in Europe before the seventeenth century, and rarer still because of membrane and not paper. (the Beinecke describes the longest as sextuple, but the diagram at suggest five-and-a-half widths, rather than six).

We do have one non-portable manuscript on vellum with pages whose height is comparable to this fold-out’s length;  the Codex Gigas [‘Gigantic codex’], the largest medieval manuscript extant, has pages of height 893mm x 490 mm.[1] It was made in Bohemia in 1229 of donkey- or of calf-skin. The range of colours is characteristic for thirteenth century works. Unlike the Voynich manuscript’s palette, this includes orange.

Gigas calendar folio 310r detail
(detail)  folio 310 r.  Kungliga Biblioteket Stockholm MS A 148.   image courtesy of the National Library of Sweden. (MS description)

The Codex Gigas certainly did belong for a time to Rudolf II, as Minishovsky once asserted that MS Beinecke 408 had done. There is no indication, though, that Mnishovky was right, nor that anyone else in Prague believed so, nor indeed that anyone ever thought much of the assertion between the early seventeenth century and the twentieth, when Wilfrid Voynich continually promoted the idea.

To put this into proportion.. the height of the pages in the Codex Gigas – only slightly less than the length of the longest Voynich fold-out :

Codex Gigas 'Rambles' blog
picture from ‘Rambles from my Chair’ (blog)

The maker(s) of these quires in MS Beinecke 408 chose not to make the fold-outs by gluing standard bifolia together, which would have been easy and was not uncommon. Instead and in addition to the substantial number of prepared quires, they would have had to buy single pieces of true ‘chart’ size vellum, either commissioned pre-cut to the size wanted,  or cut by themselves.  For some reason, the makers preferred this more expensive and troublesome option, with the result that they created foldouts of a type for which at present I know no parallel in Latin medieval books.

Inconvenience to the maker/s in acquiring the sheets would have been less had they worked for a stationer-copyist  (called by fifteenth-century Italians a cartolaio) or for a true chart-maker –  whether the charts were geographic-, maritime-, heraldic- or legal, but inconvenience for the reader remains. It seems unlikely that the same Benedictine centre which produced the prodigy which is the Codex Gigas could have been seen production of anything similar to MS Beinecke 408.  Apart from its content, a Benedictine manuscript is invariably set and ruled out in the standard Latin style as you see from the detail of folio 310r shown above.

Books of music were normally large but not as large as the Voynich fold-outs are long. A standard size for Antiphoners, for example, was 520-550 mm x 360mm.  see e.g. BL Additional MS 22310, Venice, 1460 – c. 1470.

Another paradox here: if the matter being copied were so respected that it was copied with such care that it retains a twelfth- to thirteenth- century appearance, and that the expensive option was preferred for the foldouts, and vellum used rather than parchment or paper  – then why is the vellum so ‘second rate’ in appearance?

The next few posts consider Latin fold-outs on vellum made between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries, to see if any have points in common with our manuscript.


1. Dimensions given differ in different sources. These from a paper which includes a survey of book culture in earlier Bohemia. Ivan Hlavacek ‘The Necrology of the Codex Gigas: Kungliga Biblioteket Stockholm MS A 148’  in David W. Rollason, The Durham Liber Vitae and Its Context, Boydell Press, Martlesham, (2004).  pp.191-206.



As postscript to the previous post, some inferences and conclusions of my own about the manuscript’s form and iconography.


D.N. O’Donovan  🙂

My  conclusion that fourteenth century Avignon is part of the manuscript’s evolution relies on interpretation of imagery and form which may, of course, be mistaken.  In identifying one structure in folio 86v’s north roundel as the oldest of the Avignon complex, I may have erred; similarly,  in interpreting a detail on folio 85v-1 as reference to the Mongols, or in seeing a close (and I think intentional) similarity between the figure in f.86v’s north-west roundel and the portrait of the chart-maker in  Pietro Vesconte’s chart of 1319 I might have misread the latter’s sources or intention… and so on..

However we should also note, in connection with a widespread expectation of the manuscript’s referring to medicine and/or pharmacy, that in fourteenth century Europe, as in Islam of that time, the highest quality of medicine was associated with minorities, among which the Jewish is most often noted, and in contemporary Avignon the Jewish community was large and protected during the Avignon papacy.  At that time in Islam, according to Ibn ul-Ukhuwwa, writing in about 1329 AD: “Many a town has no physician who is not a zimmi  (i.e. Christian, Jew or Zoroastrian)…. No Muslim occupies himself with [medicine]: everyone repairs to the study of (Qur’anic) law”.

In that context, too, we note that al-Isra’ili’s pharmaceutical handbook composed in 1260AD,  became immediately one – and perhaps *the* – standard reference for pharmacists in Egypt, remaining so until the very recent past ~ as noted here. Plainly, it filled a current need. [2]  Of the situation in Spain, Maud Kozodoy writes:

In the early fourteenth century, Jews made up a third of all doctors listed in the archives of Barcelona, a city whose Jewish population stood at approximately 5% of the total and this proportion was not unusual.[3]

Papal complex Avignon in the 17thC
Papal complex in Avignon. Older structures are to the rear. Detail from a map in the Atlas Van Loon (1663). Ground-level pictures of the larger buildings are included near the end of this post (Dec.26th., 2014)

In purely statistical terms, without considering either the codicological evidence, or the iconographic evidence, or even formal evaluations of our manuscript – all of which lead to the same conclusion – we may say there is a high probability that a ‘common man’s’ medical handbook – originating in the fourteenth century, was made for Jewish use. So, at present, the only reason for arguing later composition refers only to the materials from which our present copy was made, not to the matter contained in it: the radiocarbon date for just four folios of more than a hundred in this noticeably heterogeneous manuscript is one; the other being the presence of some unspecified pigments proper to the fifteenth century –  when, in the absence of other evidence, we must also  suppose that painted gowns were provided for some figures.

(Upper register) - detail from MS Beinecke 408 f.70r;  (Lower) - detail from MS Beinecke 408 f.71r.
(Upper register) – detail from MS Beinecke 408 f.70r; (Lower) – detail from MS Beinecke 408 f.71r.


NOTES (cont.):

2. For the European context, the standard work remains Joseph Shatzmiller, Jews, Medicine, and Medieval Society, University of California Press, 1995.

3. emphasis by present writer. The article cited is Maud Kozodoy, ‘The Jewish Physician in Medieval Iberia: New Directions’ – available to download as a pdf through  See also in the context of pharmacy, Gerrit Bos,. Medical Synonym Lists from Medieval Provence: Shem Tove Ben Isaac of Tortosa, Sefer Ha-Shimmush, Book 29 Part 1. Études sur le judaïsme médiéval. Leiden: Koninklijke Brill NV, 2011.


2 Replies to “Starting from scratch #9: Paper vs vellum”

  1. To save having to re-publish:
    erratum: for “the height of the pages in the Codex Gigas – only slightly less than the length of the longest Voynich fold-out ..”
    the height of the pages in the Codex Gigas – only slightly MORE (2 inches) than the length of the longest Voynich fold-out ..”


  2. As always, I have had to rely here on secondary accounts of the manuscript’s construction. If these erred – if, for instance any of the fold-outs are composite, I do hope you’ll leave a comment. In particular, I should like anyone who has seen the manuscript ‘in the flesh’ if they could clarify a description made by Jim Reeds, in which he says that:
    “Some panels form logical pages of their own, but some logical pages span
    two panels.”


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